Las Vegas. Sin City. World’s largest theme park for adults. You can take the woman out of the woods, but apparently you can’t take the woods out of the woman. Doesn’t matter if you stick her in front of a Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Nevada for a souvenir picture to prove she really was there, she doesn’t want to go in. She’s more interested in the street scenes, in the skull beneath the skin.
Buck and I almost didn’t make the side trip to Las Vegas between our time at the Grand Canyon and our reservations at the Zion Lodge in Utah. But we finally decided that it was a phenomenon to see, a man-made landscape rich with images, bits of conversation, and enough bizarre to fill up a writer’s specialty-box toolkit. Our ambivalence showed even in our choice of places to stay: not a casino hotel on the strip, but an older Residence Inn nearby set in an oasis-like low-walled garden lush with pale pink tea roses. We drove in late Friday afternoon from Hoover Dam, and made reservations at an Italian restaurant recommended by a front desk clerk. We wanted something close, reasonably quiet, maybe a little pasta and a glass of red. I looked up the place on the laptop. It was new. I called them. Nice young woman told me their food was great, to come on over. Said if I parked in the back and was nervous about going back to my car, someone would walk with me. My ears began to rotate and prickle at this. I could hear a lot of noise in the background. She explained that was the bar, where ESPN was doing an actuality — something about football. I gave Buck one of my “I don’t think so. . . . ” opinions, but he said, “What the hell, we’re in Las Vegas. We just want some dinner. How bad can it be?” I changed into white jeans and we drove the few blocks to this restaurant. An animated young guy wearing a football jersey rapped on our car window when we entered the crowded parking lot. “Should still be some spaces in the back!” he said. Buck looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. We went in. ESPN had wrapped up, the young, very sweet, spike-heeled hostess shouted to us, but “Don’t worry, the live band will be cranking up soon. They’re really good!” Yep. Well, that did it. We drove around some more, knowing that a nice quiet Italian dinner existed somewhere in this restaurant-poor town, but it was late, we were tired and hungry, and nothing sounded more wonderful than going back to the Residence Inn, pouring ourselves a drink, and ordering in Chinese food.
And it was great. Buck went down to the lobby after our feast and bought a couple of pints of chocolate ice cream from the inn’s store.
The next day, we donned shorts, t-shirts and jogging shoes and set out to hike The Strip. We walked at least 8 miles on this warm sun-filled day, stopped for lunch at a restaurant in one of Steve Wynn’s casinos, and toward the end of the day wandered through the labyrinthine MGM Grand until we found the Monorail station, which we rode back to the Las Vegas Convention Center right across from our hotel. I had brought along a slinky black dress and high heels just in case we (a) stopped in Las Vegas and (b) went to a slinky-black-dress place for dinner. But I was the one who wound up suggesting to Buck that we put up our feet and order another delivery supper from the same restaurant we ordered from the night before. We had seen the show, or skimmed the surface anyway, and were ready to get on to the splendid natural environment of Zion National Park in neighboring Utah.
I have a swirl of conflicting thoughts trying to write even a few descriptive paragraphs about our short visit. Some character sketches I’m saving for my “Judge Kate” mystery series (slow, but in process!). Vegas is a target-rich environment for wanna-be writers, that’s for sure. Glitzy to garish, it’s all there.
Out on the street I saw giggling gaggles of tipsy girls. They were over 21, so maybe I should call them women, but let’s face it, these kids were still girls, college-age adorable colts wearing faux designer mini dresses, teetering along in stiletto heels. Looked like bunches of brides and their maids. Innocence itself, but from the high sober distance of age and experience, I saw sharks circling and hoped their larks ended safely back home in Peoria or Charleston.
That first evening, circling around blocks in our fruitless search for a quiet booth and even quieter Sinatra, we took a lushly landscaped wrong turn by one of the huge casino complexes bordering The Strip and found ourselves facing a security booth manned by a two-legged, highly trained Doberman, just waiting for the dog whistle for his professional smile to turn dangerous. He looked like armed muscle, and not altogether ready to believe that two lost-looking tourists in a black Lincoln Town Car with Florida plates had strayed onto his turf accidentally. He asked where we were trying to go, gave us rapid-fire instructions (twice) on how to use the tunnel under the hotel that would drop us off right in front of the Convention Center, then raised the electronic gate so we could u-turn and get the heck out of there. The tunnel under the hotel idea sounded pretty sketchy, but we barreled into it nonetheless, zigged when we should have zagged and wound up in the “Taxi Cabs and Limos Only” line, where we emerged at the front of the hotel and were subjected to some derision and verbal insult by the professionals. By this time, we really were ready to get back to our nice, comfy Residence Inn room! Which we did, followed by scotch and water for me and a fine Manhattan cocktail for Buck, then the aforementioned Chinese food and chocolate ice cream.
Buck’s NRA (National Rifle Association) cap and sinewy old guy swagger largely inoculated us from the outstretched hands of the smut leafleteers who litter the sidewalks. Unlicensed street performers had big-eyed, sad-looking confederates talking them up, trying to draw a few paying customers. The street performers had to be sweltering in their get-ups. I saw several Darth Vaders, one Chewbacca, a dwarf Elvis and several break-dancing guys in military costumes covered with theatrical paint designed to make them look like bronze statues come to life. I wondered if the stuff gradually suffocated or poisoned them.
On almost every street corner I saw nondescript folks wearing some sort of uniform that made me think of a prohibition-era temperance society. They were soliciting money, they said, to help provide shelter for the homeless. Since coming back home, I have learned that some of the Las Vegas homeless have turned the city’s underground flood channels into dwelling places. Check out Matt O’Brien’s 2007 book, Beneath the Neon, and his 2010 collection of stories, My Week at the Blue Angel. I bought a Kindle edition of Beneath the Neon today.
Most of what I saw in this day-time stroll were gawkers and hawkers, but I did see plenty of hard-eyed watchers, staggering drunks and some folks passed out on the curb. The open container laws are permissive, so plenty of people walk along turning up a bottle of beer or drinking from a massive souvenir slushy drink. Those big drinks range from 32 to 100 ounces of fruit juice, sugar, crushed ice and Everclear grain alcohol. They cost anywhere from $12 to $30. That’s a lot of brain-dead, right there.
There was this guy we saw. He walked in that wide-legged stance assumed by a drunk man trying to use his legs as a two parts of a tripod. He clutched a huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass in one hand, paused by an open city-provided trash container, reached over into it, came out with another huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass, dropped the one he had finished into the trash, turned the scavenged drink remains up for a long pull, and emitted a roar that sounded like a water buffalo: part primal pleasure and part warning. “Mine! I found it. It’s mine!”
I’m still shocked, stunned by this and will never forget that sound, or the look of this man-beast as he lumbered and stagger-stepped past us, mad blue eyes wide and staring in the blinding desert sun.
We sat cross-legged on the bed in our Residence Inn room Saturday night, bags repacked, goggle-eyed from the fun-house mirror we had walked through all day. We talked about all that we had seen and done so far on our road trip odyssey and wondered what Utah would bring to the table. We were eager to get on the road to Zion.